Academic jobs usually refer to those jobs which require a PhD and then lead to employment at a college where you will carry out some combination of teaching and research activities. Given the fact that doing a PhD is a huge investment of your time and energy, and that the academic job search is not an easy one, career advice for people considering doing a PhD or who are already in a PhD program is crucial. Here are some top tips:
Tip #1: Not all academic jobs are what they seem. Know the difference between ‘tenure-track’ and adjunct.
If you’re serious about finding a job in academia, you have probably looked at job advertisements in your area of interest. Just because you find a lot of ads does not mean that there are a lot of jobs out there that you want. There is a huge division between jobs that are what is called ‘tenure-track’ positions and those that are not. Tenure-track jobs are those which are advertised as being either for Assistant Professors, Associate Professors or Full Professors. These are the desirable posts that are full time, with room for advancement and that should pay a decent salary. Alongside these jobs, few and far between, is the sea of professors called ‘adjuncts’. Although they may require a PhD, the pay is normally ridiculously low and these employees are paid per class that they teach with absolutely no job security. To top it all off, they are paid much less than tenure-track professors for teaching the exact same classes. U.S. universities are hiring fewer tenure-track professors and more adjuncts in an attempt to save money.
Tip #2: Some departments pay a lot more than others, but the tuition costs are likely to be the same. See why this is important.
Imagine that you are a college graduate with a B.A. from an English department where you just wrote your senior thesis on The Effects of Text Messaging on High School Students’ Writing Skills. Let’s say that you used some specialized computer programs to analyze the text messages and administered psychological and linguistic tests to your participants. Instead of applying to English departments for a PhD, consider also applying to computer science, linguistics, and psychology departments. The research that you carry out during your PhD may end up being very much the same in any of these departments. After all, it’s your research. To understand why you might want to go with a PhD program in computer science as opposed to one in an English department, do an online search of average faculty salaries for professors in each area and prepare to be amazed. To apply for a job as an Assistant Professor in computer science, you would have much better luck if your PhD was in that niche. Keeping your mind and your options open at this early stage could add hundreds of thousands of dollars to your future income. For the same amount of tuition, you could get a PhD in any of the mentioned departments. Sure, you might feel like a fish out of water during the first year of studies in a computer science department, but it could be well worth it in the long run.
Tip #3: Go to the university that has the best PhD supervisor you can find, not the ‘best’ university.
When you’re on the job market, what matters much more than what university you went to for your PhD is the name and reputation of your supervisor. Not only do some names carry clout and prestige, but they also signal to future employers that you have a depth of research experience in your area and that you have been impeccably trained. Also, good PhD supervisors help their students to be productive well into their first academic job and this bodes well for the university who is hiring you.
Tip #4: How to find out if your prospective PhD supervisor is productive and will help you.
This one is easy. Type your prospective supervisor’s name into “Google Scholar” and see how many articles come up. Active researchers should be publishing at least 1 or 2 articles per year in high quality peer-reviewed journals (or books in some fields). Part two is a little bit trickier, but definitely possible. Try to find on the department’s website, the name of past and present PhD students supervised by the person in questions. Are their names showing up alongside the supervisor’s on publications? Are they producing publications on their own? A ‘yes’ to either of these is a strong sign that you would be publishing papers if working with this supervisor.
Tip #5: Publish, publish, publish
As the academic market gets tighter and tighter, probably the most important thing to have on your CV by the time you are on your academic job search is a list of publications. You will probably not need a large number, but having a few goes a long way towards determining whether you will end up on the coveted tenure-track or whether you will have to struggle as an adjunct. The expression publish or perish still holds true in academia. Make this your priority during your PhD and if possible, try to have at least one article where you are the lead author. This shows potential employers that you can take charge and that you will still be productive once you have left your supervisor’s nest.
Tip #6: To go the extra mile, write grants with your PhD supervisor
The only thing better than having publications is to have actually brought in cold, hard cash. This means applying for research grants, either with your supervisor or possibly on your own or with others. Although this is a rare expectation of someone applying for their first Assistant Professor job, having grants on your CV will greatly set you apart from the rest of the pack. Although individual travel grants, internal grants and others of this ilk are positive, what a university really wants is external funding that has gone to support your research work. This shows that you will possibly be the ‘next big thing’ if they hire you.
Tip #7: If your supervisor asks you to attend a conference, go.
Just like in every field, it’s not just what you know, it’s who you know. Academia is no different. If people know you and like you, they’re more apt to hire you, simple as that. Many universities have a ban on hiring their own PhD students as Assistant Professors, meaning you may have to step outside of your home institution. Knowing other people in the field, especially more senior people, gives you a greater chance of being known by someone on a hiring committee. The main place that you will meet these people is at academic conferences and the best way to meet people there is to be introduced, and hopefully bragged about, by your supervisor. Although traveling across the country with your supervisor and spending all that time together may sound as pleasant as a trip to the dentist, jump at the opportunity and meet everyone you can. If your supervisor doesn’t introduce you to colleagues, just ask. Remember that your success makes them look more successful too.
As a new PhD student, or someone just considering a PhD, finding your first academic job may seem a light years away. However, mapping out your career path early on will definitely give you the competitive edge when entering the academic workforce. Taking career advice early on could make all the difference to your academic future, so plan well and reap the benefits.